By Sammy Ikeny - AIC Lokichoggio Health Centre
The Turkana are part of Nilotic tribes and constitute the second largest pastoralist community in Kenya after the Maasai. They speak the Turkana language, which is similar to the Maasai language. The Turkana, like the Samburu and Maasai, still maintain their undiluted traditional way of life. They are distinguished as being great survivors, living in harsh and inhospitable terrain.
As with all other pastoralist tribes in Kenya, livestock, especially cattle, are at the core of Turkana culture. The Turkana people live a nomadic life, always moving from one place to another depending on the availability of pasture and water for their animals.
The Turkana people place such a high value on cattle that they often raid other tribes to acquire more animals. This may be seen as theft, but to the Turkana and other pastoralist tribes in Northern Kenya, it is a perfectly acceptable traditional custom.
Cattle raids are common between Turkanas and their neighboring tribes, especially the Karamoja of Uganda and the Pokot and Marakwet of Southern Kenya. Unfortunately, these cattle raids have increasingly become more dangerous due to an upsurge in the use of small firearms (guns and rifles).
Today, many people in the region own unlicensed firearms for their own protection. The sight of a Turkana herdsman holding a G3 (or AK47) rifle while herding his animals is not strange. Unlike other nomadic tribes, the Turkana do not have many complex customs or strong social structures. Each Turkana family tends to be self-sufficient though at times a number of families may graze their animals collectively.
Polygamy is an acceptable way of life. A Turkana man can marry as many wives as he can afford to pay bride price for. Like the Luo and the Teso tribes, the Turkana do not practice male circumcision. They also do not hold any special initiation rituals to mark the transition to manhood.
HIV situation in Turkana County
According to the Kenya HIV County Profiles, 2016, Turkana County has a population of 1,045,579, comprising of 542,658 males (52 per cent) and 502,921 females (48 per cent). Children below 15 years constitute 43 per cent of the population, while youth aged 15-24 years constitute 24 per cent of the population (2015 KNBS Population Projections.
The HIV prevalence among women in the county is higher (5.7 per cent) than that of men (3.4 per cent), indicating that women are more vulnerable to HIV infection than men in the county.
Poverty in Turkana County
Poverty refers to scarcity or lack of a certain amount of material possessions or money.
Poverty remains a major challenge in Turkana County. Although the proportion of Kenya’s population living below the poverty line declined from 52.6 percent in 1997 to 45.9 percent in 2005/06, in Turkana County the proportion living below poverty is at a staggering 92 percent while those who are food poor are 72.7 percent.
Multiple crises such as post-election violence, severe drought and recession during the years 2008, 2009 and 2011 are likely to have increased the poverty levels. The county’s contribution to national poverty stands at 1.3 percent.
Effect of poverty on human rights violations against PLWHIV
At AIC Lockichoggio, it is clear that poverty contributes to human rights violations among PLWHAs. The PLWHIV go through a lot of suffering and abuse from the community. However, due to lack of finances to even feed themselves, they are unable to take legal measures against the perpetrators of these human rights violations.
Poverty also contributes to un-intended disclosure of one’s HIV status. Many PLWHIV live in deplorable conditions. Often, their living quarters are extremely congested and their privacy is compromised.
Alcoholism is common in the community. Cases of people using alsoholism and drunkenness as an excuse for violating the rights of PLWHIV are common. Unauthorised disclosure and abuse are some of the more rampant human rights abuses.
Many of such cases could be avoided if each family unit had its own homestead. However, this is not possible due to poverty.
A clean and healthy environment remains a pipe dream for most people in Turkana. The community, including PLWHIV get their drinking water from rivers near their homes. During the dry season, these rivers tend to dry up, leaving many families without water. Worse, many families practice open defecation. This predisposes communities, especially PLWHIV, to all kinds of communicable diseases ranging from cholera, typhoid, and amoebiasis.
Poverty coupled with HIV compromises human dignity; first one is poor, and second, majority of PLHIV go through acceptance challenges, both self acceptance and acceptance by the community, seeing themselves as not equal to others. They feel they don’t deserve some benefits and therefore tend to associate themselves with people in the same situation.
Further, living in poverty denies children living with HIV right to education, and most of the time, they are neglected. The community fears to waste their resources on people they believe have no future and can die anytime due to their health status.
Infection with HIV is therefore perceived as a death sentence and such children are not given equal opportunities, compromising their future.
Effect of culture on human rights violations against PLWHIV
Culture refers to ideas, customs and social behavior of a particular people or society. Turkana culture allows wife inheritance and polygyny. In one way or another, this will lead to new HIV infections, re-infection with mutants, un-intended pregnancy and lastly, poor health following high viral load, depression and stress.
The culture only allows ownership of property for males. For example, livestock belongs to the man, even if it is the woman who bought them.
This culture limits access to or use of such property. In case a woman is sick she must get permission from the husband to sell livestock to raise hospital fees. In addition, it is the duty of the wife to provide shelter and submit to the husband at all times.
Women who are HIV positive are usually advised to plan their families and take the requisite measures, with the help of the health worker, to ensure their babies do not contract the virus. However, the local culture does not allow use family planning methods, including condoms. This provides an avenue for new infections, unplanned deliveries, and in the long run, poverty.
Further, culture usually leads to stigma and discrimination. Individuals known to be HIV-positive are feared, denied freedom to associate with others due to the misplaced fear that they will also get infected.
The PLWHIV therefore face a lot of discrimination, mainly due to lack of awareness and education in the community.
Also, the local culture advocates for herbal medicines. There is a belief that there is no treatment for HIV in the hospital set up, hence PLWHIV are given herbs. This leads to poor health as these herbs they are not of benefit while the virus gets an opportunity to replicate. Moreover, the PLWHIV end up wasting much-needed resources on traditional doctors with no benefit whatsoever.
Culturally, the rights of women are not respected. The main social protection that a widow can get from the community is to be inherited by another man, mostly a relative of her deceased husband. This ensures the continuity of her residence and access to her matrimonial property which, according to Turkana culture, is not inherited by girls or women.
CHAK HIV and human rights project
Following aforementioned challenges, the CHAK HIV and human rights project was introduced at AIC Lokichoggio. Through the project, a facility-based committee was formed to address some of the issues in relation to human rights violations. The committee is composed of:
1. Focal point person
2. Peer volunteers
3. Opinion leader
4. Local administration (assistant chief)
5. Religious leader (pastor)
The focal point person is the key player in the committee, because majority of affected people will not come out openly to report human rights abuse. Additionally, many of them do not know where to report such abuses so they keep silent.
The project has created awareness among CCC clients through psychosocial support meetings and peer volunteers to encourage them to report cases of rights violations. Due to this efforts, approximately 2-3 cases of human rights violations are reported every month.
Most of the cases are handled by the committee, although complicated ones are referred to legal systems such as the police and provincial administration, e.g. chief’s office.
This intervention has been a huge relief for the locals and an eye opener on how to seek justice. The human rights committee has been well appreciated by the local community.
The case of Ms. Akal Lorumor
Ms. Akal Lorumor, a widow from Lorus Village, Nanam ward summarized the situation of Turkana widows when interviewed during a community outreach.
After the death of her husband, a woman experiences many problems caused by some of the traditions. Turkana culture requires that a widow be inherited and her deceased husband’s property be confiscated from her.
A widow has no value in our culture. We (widows) are called ngapuser, a derogatory term. We are discriminated against even by fellow women who have husbands.
This situation makes us lonely and obviously forces most widows to get into unwanted re-marriage (being inherited by their husbands’ brothers). If one refuses to re-marry, she can be sent back to her family empty-handed.
Sometime in the past, they wanted to inherit me as a widow. They organized a clan meeting. But I refused and told them that I would not allow that happen.
I won! And look, here I am, with my own house, cows and have managed to send my children to school. My first born is in AIC Kangitit School. Other widows are in trouble every day, but I am trying to educate them ‘behind closed doors’ because it is dangerous to spread this ‘poison’ of awareness to others. The whole village will be against me.
Ms. Akal Lorumor educates all widows who come to her on their human rights after being trained by AIC Lokichoggio Health Centre on human rights.